India v Australia, 1st Test, Pune, 3rd day February 25, 2017

A Steven Smith lesson on playing spin

The second-innings century, which steadily shut India out of the Pune Test, underlined the clarity and flexibility of Steven Smith's plans and his assessment of the conditions and the opposition
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Manjrekar: Smith has a natural gift to know what the ball is going to do

"But can he do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?"

The beauty of this line lies in the many forms it took. The exact words of the question football pundit Andy Gray asked of Barcelona's Lionel Messi are near impossible to trace - because of the countless caricatures it spawned - but on the surface it seemed to be a put-down of all football outside the English Premier League. Scratch the surface, and you might see a semblance of reason to it. That conditions - symbolised by chilly, rainy Stoke - are after all important, especially when playing against a team that plays exceptionally well at home.

Because this statement involved Messi - arguably the greatest of all time - the fans thought of Gray more as a pirate than pundit: one-eyed. Thus began its mockery, using the quote in any context to mock-question anything. The IPL auction, for example, pays out the most ridiculous amounts of money, but can it pay its hotel bill on a cold day in Stoke?

Cricket has its own versions because conditions are way more significant in this sport than football. If you were to mock it, you could bring up IPL and a searing hot May night in Anytown, India. On more serious notes, May in Durham is often brought up when someone is scoring runs elsewhere. The WACA Ground pitch of the old was a test you had to ace before being rated. Of late, though, the geography is changing. For two years now, it has been time to ask of anyone scoring tons of Test runs, "But can he do it on a warm day against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in India?"

Coming into the Pune Test, India, the No. 1 side in the world, had last lost a Test at home in December 2012, a full 20 matches ago. Their recent unbeaten streak at home and away stretched to 19 Tests. They had the two top bowlers in the ICC rankings, one of whom is the fastest to 250 wickets and is a good bet to keep that record at 300 too. New Zealand, England and Bangladesh had been dominated already. Australia were given no chance despite boasting a batsman who averaged more than 60. The only question everybody asked after Steven Smith's recent centuries was, "But can he do it on a turning track in India?"

As a batting unit, Australia came with a reputation of being excellent dominators on flat tracks but prone to collapses on ones that called for application. Those collapses had become this all-consuming, almighty force that swept everything in their wake. They collapsed even from positions of strength, losing in Kandy and Perth to name two, so some memories would have come back when they lost two wickets in seven overs in the second innings.

They needed someone to make sure they didn't give India a window by getting bowled out for 150. "But could Smith do it on a Bunsen against Ashwin and Jadeja?"

What followed was a workshop in batting on extreme pitches in particular and spin in general. The plans were in place before he walked out to bat. A little background is in order. Smith is an obsessive yet flexible batsman. The obsession shows in how after he was given out lbw to South Africa left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj when halfway down the wicket, he stepped out only once in the 100 balls of spin he faced in that home series. He swept only once; the sweep is not his favourite shot.

"I did advance once at the start of the summer and got out lbw," Smith said on arrival in Mumbai. "So I decided to stay back in my crease a little bit. You can do that in Australia with the wickets, they're pretty consistent with their turn and bounce. I have different game plans where I play, and how I play spin. That's going to change from playing at the WACA to the first Test in Pune. I'm pretty clear with the way I play."

While one could point to the dropped catches he benefited from, they take nothing away from the application and methodology Smith showed at the crease © AFP

Here Smith knew he would have to sweep, he knew he would have to come down the track to score runs. He knew he couldn't afford to play a forward-defensive. Spinners say you have got to bowl fuller on these pitches because you want the batsmen to defend off the front foot. You don't want to let them go back because then the ball turns past the edge.

Smith went back at the slightest opportunity he got. Jadeja kept turning the ball past his outside edge, creating excitement in the field, but Smith was nonplussed. He often smiled, almost mocking Jadeja's inability to either pitch it up or control the amount of turn.

Smith also kept playing the line of the ball to guard against the ball that doesn't turn. A day before this Test, he admitted it was near impossible to pick the ball that comes out as an offbreak but doesn't turn after pitching. He also said against such bowling you have to eliminate one half of the bat. He practised what he preached. He batted in a way where he was not going to be beaten on the inside edge. If you get the outside edge, hard luck, but do not at any cost let the straighter ball sneak past the inside edge to get you lbw. When the ball turned, he didn't follow it with his hands.

Smith hardly lunged forward in defence, unlike the India batsmen who tried to meet the ball on the half-volley only in defence, leaving themselves open to edges because of the extreme nature of the pitch. This was great percentage batting. He knew with the ball turning so much he could hardly be given out lbw, which gave him the confidence of staying back when he defended. He left the crease or moved forward only when he intended to get runs.

Outside loose balls, a significant proportion of Smith's runs came through sweeps and advances down the wicket. In the second innings he played 14 orthodox and three reverse sweeps for 16 runs. He left the crease on a whopping 25 occasions for 21 runs even though he had lost his wicket in the first innings when charging at Ashwin. He knew this was a kind of pitch where while you have to trust your defence, you also have to do unto the bowlers before they do unto you.

There will be those who will point to Smith's luck with dropped catches, but even if he had been caught on 23, Smith had shown that his method worked on this pitch. He had shown it did in the first innings, too. Returns of 27 and 23 would have been perfectly acceptable on this pitch, but Smith cashed in on the drop and went on to score more runs than India's first-innings score in the most challenging of conditions.

Just let the facts sink in: this is a second-innings hundred on a rank turner in India against the two best bowlers in the world. Kevin Pietersen scored a hundred in Mumbai in 2012-13 that should rival this, but it was on a better pitch than this. And that innings was all genius; this was about method, about application, about hard work. The runs were immaterial; Smith had shown everybody the way to bat on this pitch. And now he can score all the hundreds he wants outside India without being asked, "But can he do it on a warm day in India?"

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lins2 on March 1, 2017, 8:04 GMT

    @Vaughan Garner. Nonplussed - I noticed this also. As you correctly point out, it means surprised. It also means confused. Hardly an appropriate description of Steven's batting in that innings and, if I may be so bold, not what Sidharth meant. That catachresis aside, a very good article.

  •   Saikat Kar on February 28, 2017, 6:07 GMT

    For all the people downplaying Smith's hundred, lets wait until the series is over. I feel more is to come. Especially because the pitches are going to be flatter from now on. Don't get surprised if Kohli scores yet another 200 on a road of a pitch. Also, I can guarantee none of his fans will forget to say he is the best batsman in the world then.

  • cricketcarl on February 27, 2017, 17:29 GMT

    not sure bout smith's 'nathan bracken' look, but '3' for 109 is more than india's 10 for 105 and 10 for 107 although i've said it before, and i'll say it again, a team that doesnt hold its catches, isnt serious about winning, how do you catch a fly in a broken web, and that goes for any team

  • Worst#1SideEverIndia on February 27, 2017, 15:11 GMT

    Well news is coming out that the pitch was doctored by the BCCI or whatever they call themselves.

  • Marcio on February 27, 2017, 13:24 GMT

    ADITYA.GOEL07, may I suggest you also learn stats. Your argument is that a sample size of 60 is illegitimate, while 200 is fine. Well, why not compare the same sample size? How many runs per innings did Sachin average after 60 tests. Simple. For all you know, Smith's average might go up. Your claim that "Sachin is a genius" is a not a statistical, empirical fact. It is a subjective opinion. In fact, looking at how incredibly original and innovative Smith is at the crease, the word "genius" might well be an apt tag.

  • ABHI-DCricketFan on February 27, 2017, 12:48 GMT

    Feel really sad for Ashwin here . He did manage two create two very simple chances of Smith and our wonderful fielders dropped it . India was buried then and there . You just don't drop someone like Smith thrice and not on this pitch even in your dreams.

  • Herath-UK on February 27, 2017, 12:39 GMT

    The fact of the matter is a number one team full of confidence could not do a job whereas a transitional team low in confidence did it to perfection. Where is credit due, where are the guts & skills, open the eyes.

  • anver777 on February 27, 2017, 10:40 GMT

    Even this overrated whole Ind team couldn't manage to score at least Smith's personal score of 109 from their both innings... 105 & 107 what a pathetic & disgusting display of cricket on their familiar spin friendly home conditions and also in front of the crowd support !!! The way its going at the moment I think Aus will win this series 3/1 !!

  • ThreePIllarTales on February 27, 2017, 9:41 GMT

    Match result was just another international match according to Virat. Ridiculous rank turner to suit the best spin bowlers in the world against a team known for weakness in playing spin..... smacked by a huge margin...of course it is not important...lol

    Smith was lucky cuz he is no Virat. Sok was lucky cuz he is not that good 17 Indian batsmen were unlucky playing spin in India Jeez must be snowing in Delhi Lol nuff said

  • ThreePIllarTales on February 27, 2017, 9:16 GMT

    Unlike sachin or virat, smithy is a tale of two careers.... one as a spinner all rounder versus the remodelled specialist batsman. Sachin and virat were earmarked as batsman and future leaders as is common for most captains whilst Smudge had to alter the inherent career previously accepted. His batting and captaincy is self crafted and engineered at an age where most habits are ingrained. Unlike previous captaincies of annointed as gifted per Clarke or Ponting, Smudge had to graft his captaincy by pushing his credentials in battle. So compare if you must but do it with an even hand. Smith is a thinker and more importantly a fighter and leader by way of hard roads whilst Virat rules imperious by natural expectation. Comparison in pure batsman and captaincy terms would be interesting. Yes yes India to win in India etc etc

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